To protect yourself from the corona virus, you should keep a distance of one and a half meters from your fellow human beings and wash your hands as often as possible. But the world of epidemics has very different calibers to offer. The smallpox, for example, spreads over the initially catarrhally coughing infected and settle in an incredible 20 meters in the throat area of other people, carried by air. Any object touched by a smallpox becomes highly infectious. As soon as the characteristic pustules, which appear black from coagulated blood, are scratched open and ignite, even flies that feast on the pus of the pustules can easily transmit the virus.
58 years ago, smallpox was rampant in the Monschau district near Aachen, the outermost part of the Hürtgenwald. This almost catastrophe contains all the elements that we currently know from everyday life: an initial interplay of unfortunate circumstances, misjudgments by overwhelmed medical professionals, authority ignorance and recklessness; finally drastic measures with quarantine, ban on going out and the closure of entire towns. We see the greatest human willingness to help, but also bad scenes of lack of solidarity, which seemed to make one village the enemy of the next.
The Eifel drama was crowned by media hype that already revealed unease about globalization. SPIEGEL wrote: “In Germany, the disease could practically be eradicated as long as the travelers from the traditional smallpox countries preferred to come by ship. If a passenger became infected, the disease usually broke out during the steamboat journey. Plague hygiene advantage: It was easy to quarantine all contacts, but with the advent of the mass flight age after World War II, the danger grew that the plague would come into the country undetected. “
In early 1962 she came to the Hürtgenwald.
“The German Doctor” is coming back
Günter Stüttgen, then 25, had experienced the Hürtgenwald during the war. He was the medical officer who, in reports from survivors of the so-called All-Souls' Battle in November 1944, was called The German Doctor emerged and saved the lives of hundreds at the “Miracle of the Huertgen Forest”, including US soldiers. He was supposed to return less than 20 years later. Again it was a matter of life and death, again he put his own well-being and security behind in order to follow the Hippocratic oath and to help the sick under all circumstances.
The epidemic in the Eifel began with a typically German success story, a medium-sized company that is still one of the world market leaders in its sector: Otto Junker GmbH sold high-temperature furnaces all over the world and sent Josef Breuer, 31, to India in May 1961 for assembly. On December 20, he went home to celebrate Christmas in Lammersdorf with his wife and two children.
It is unclear exactly how he got infected with smallpox – whether in Madras (now Chennai), when changing at the airport in Karachi or with a strikingly handsome Air India stewardess; later he thought he remembered strange black pimples on her forehead.
Archive Association for Local History and Village Culture Lammersdorf
On January 5, Josef Breuer began to feel uncomfortable. He suspected a cold in the snow-covered Eifel after his stay in the subtropical Madras. His family doctor Dr. Lammersdorf Laikin wrote him off sick for a “flu” infection. When days later pustular skin changes appeared on the soles of the feet and palms of the hands, the doctor diagnosed chickenpox and did not think of Variola, the life-threatening, highly infectious smallpox. Breuer had been vaccinated against the virus years earlier.
About two weeks after her father's first symptoms, nine-year-old Waltraud Breuer was also in bad shape. She was sick, itchy and itchy. With uneasiness, Waltraud's mother discovered pimples all over her body. Dr. diagnosed on home visit Laikin chickenpox. The father was back in the company when Laikin realized his huge mistake at the dinner table at the end of January: what tormented the father and especially the little daughter was the smallpox.
The viruses spread in the clinic
An ambulance raced to Aachen with the feverish Waltraud. At around seven in the evening, the doctor on duty in front of the city clinic called the senior doctor, and the head of the department, and that of the director. Gathered together, they looked at the exhausted, delirious child through the car windows, withdrew for advice, telephoned up the hierarchy of the health authorities.
Around 10 p.m., the chief doctor of the Simmerath hospital received a call. The Düsseldorf Ministry of the Interior demanded that the girl infected with smallpox be taken in. In Simmerath, the chief doctor objected, there was no isolation station, unlike in Aachen, where numerous doctors had recently been immunized. Yes, but the city of Aachen has refused to accept it. Then maybe to Düsseldorf? No. The child comes from the Monschau district and needs to be cared for there. That was the last word.
So an improvised isolation station was hastily built in a building that was completely unsuitable for it. Around midnight the ambulance driver carried the girl, who was coughing heavily, into the hospital room. A patient leaned out of the window to see what was going on. She fell ill a few days later – infected by the viruses carried away by the wind. Other patients were discharged the next day. No one suspected that Waltraud's cough had already spread the virus in the hospital. Anyone there could be infected and a potential carrier.
“A calamity was brewing above the heads of the people in the Monschau district,” wrote Lammersdorf's regional historian Jürgen Siebertz on February 1, 1962. At the same time, Günter Stüttgen received a request from the Ministry of the Interior to go to the Eifel. None of the doctors there knew what to do. The Düsseldorf dermatologist searched in vain for colleagues with the courage to accompany him. Nobody wanted to take the risk.
Keep driving, never stop
Only the brave assistant Constantin Orfanos, who was a doctor in his first year, agreed to go to the Hürtgenwald with his supervisor. “Stüttgen had studied smallpox in India. I was very proud to be able to help him,” says Orfanos, 83 today. “He was a role model for me in every respect. A happy, but also determined person.” The two remained close friends, outstanding scientists with remarkable careers; In 1987 they organized the dermatological world congress in Berlin.
In 1962 in the Eifel they worked together under the most delicate circumstances. Dr. Orfanos was given the task of staying at the Junker company as a “smallpox officer” for four weeks, checking every suspicion and immediately isolating employees if necessary. Stüttgen himself initiated all necessary measures and examined the cases.
On February 2, at five in the morning, the police woke up Lammersdorf residents with the gruesome loudspeaker announcement of a possible smallpox case. At the entrances to the town, police and customs officials warned not to stop. The senior district director closed all schools and banned events of all kinds – in the middle of the carnival. Vaccination campaigns were launched in many villages.
In neighboring Belgium, the press reacted with gruesome covers and the government took a measure just like today: the border was closed instantly. Schools and youth homes became quarantine stations. On February 4, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the district an “International Infection Area”. By then, about 150 people had been in secondary quarantine, but new cases appeared almost daily. Doctors and nurses were also increasingly ill.
The patient who had observed Waltraud's admission to Simmerath died on February 20. The hospital came under the strictest quarantine. No patient was allowed outside, no one inside. Günter Stüttgen struggled to adhere to the necessary protocols for every new case. The many sisters, Red Cross employees and volunteers groaned under their constant strain, the health system around Monschau was on the brink of collapse. But there was no alternative.
“If we had machine guns …”
In addition, surrounding hospitals vehemently refused to accept “normal” patients from the circle. Every mon shower was suspected of introducing smallpox. Die Zeit reported on a meeting in Langerwehe near Düren:
“They were waiting for the first signs of an uprising that Mayor Schoeller had threatened the previous day: 'We will do everything we can to prevent the Langerwehe hospital from being filled with patients from the Monschau district. If necessary, we will strike.' For the two representatives of the Aachen government president, a spokesman for the community reiterated: 'We will climb the barricades.' The villagers on the benches applauded and shouted: 'Hear! Hear!' and 'Bravo!' An old man thundered his stick on the floor and made a noise: 'If we had machine guns, you could wind up in front of the hospital.'
The last five patients could only be discharged on April 10, 1962. The balance of the Eifel epidemic: one dead, four very serious and 33 moderately ill. 700 people were temporarily in quarantine, around 5000 were vaccinated. Overall, the doctors noted an “extremely mild course”. When an electrician brought smallpox from Pakistan to the Sauerland region in 1970, there was another epidemic with 20 people infected, two years later the last smallpox case in Germany. In 1979 the WHO declared this evil to be eradicated.
Josef Breuer lives in Lammersdorf today. His daughter Waltraud, who had suffered so much, was able to leave the hospital in good health after exactly 40 days of isolation. Plastic surgery healed her pockmarks. She married and lived a happy life – until today.
Günter Stüttgen, who had looked after her every day, fell ill with smallpox on his second assignment in the Hürtgenwald. His son Ulrich remembers: “My brother and I were not told the reason why the father never came home, which of course we missed.” Stüttgen's family was put under quarantine in their Düsseldorf apartment: “We little boys were suddenly out of school and found it good again! Every evening a gentleman from the health department came to the front door and took samples from us.”
The Stüttgens were lucky. But of all things a Düsseldorf nurse who cared for the courageous doctor and others at the time also fell ill. She died. Shortly before his death in 2003, Stüttgen told the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” about her: “She saw the spots on her skin and was absolutely certain that she was going to die. She knew it, I knew it.”